The All Blacks have spent the last few years shedding their image as the unsmiling giants of world rugby: a reputation bought and paid for in hard currency by the mean-eyed monsters of old – utterly ruthless types like Wayne Shelford and, before him, Colin Meads, of whom the expensively educated old-school England lock David Marques once famously said: "You know, the thing one most dislikes about that chap is the way the terminal traces of one's jockstrap hang from the corners of his mouth at the end of a game."
These days, the New Zealanders scare their opponents witless in entirely different, infinitely more subtle ways, and the frightener-in-chief is Daniel Carter, who could scarcely be nicer if he tried. "I am," the world's best outside-half pronounced yesterday, "in a pretty good space at the moment." If that doesn't terrify England to the marrow ahead of tomorrow's final autumn Test at Twickenham, they must be made of sterner stuff than they have spent the last couple of weeks letting on.
With Carter in town, anything is possible – or rather, almost anything. One of very few exceptions would appear to be a home victory. England have never beaten an All Black team with Carter in the starting line-up; indeed, the tourists have put something in excess of 30 points past the red-rose army on every occasion bar one since Carter first featured in the fixture in 2004. Generally speaking, he scores most of those points himself: more than 60 in the last three meetings alone. Put simply, England would rather he was anywhere but in a "pretty good space" at this precise moment.
Last year, the 27-year-old maestro – ace goal-kicker, master game-shaper and all-round virtuoso – suffered a desperate Achilles tendon injury while playing a French championship game for Perpignan, whom he joined in a big-money deal after negotiating himself a sabbatical from his other big-money job as New Zealand's most recognisable sporting personality. It cost him six months of his playing career, but in what England might regard as confirmation of the existence of Sod's Law, he believes he is a better, stronger, more accomplished performer as a consequence.
"What happened to me in France was pretty frustrating, but looking back, the experience freshened me up," he remarked. "I have great energy for the game now, great motivation. It can be challenging, playing in the same competitions season after season. I needed a change of lifestyle and that's what I gave myself by moving to Perpignan. It's given me a new drive to play my best rugby for New Zealand." Thanks a bunch, as Martin Johnson might say.
Steve Hansen, the long-serving All Black forwards strategist who now works closely with Carter in plotting New Zealand's attacking game, this week bracketed his man and Jonny Wilkinson as the two outstanding No 10s of the current era. There is a direct parallel between the two in terms of accurate marksmanship, if not in certain other aspects of their respective modus operandi, but by working his way back into international rugby after leaving his homeland for a spell in southern France, the celebrated Englishman has something new in common with his opposite number.
"It looks like Jonny is getting back to his best form and I'd say part of that is down to playing in new surroundings," Carter said. "Did I think I'd seen the last of him, what with all those injuries he suffered? Never. Anyone who meets Jonny recognises his dedication, the depth of his motivation, the strength of his work ethic. If a rugby player leads his life like that, he'll achieve his goals and get his reward.
"He's right up there in my book – a class player. His physicality is one of the great parts of his game: he'll always give you 100 per cent when it comes to putting his body on the line. Like me, he's played a lot of Test rugby now, and the more you play, the more you learn. I'd like to think I'm a senior figure with the All Blacks, one of the leaders on the field. He's certainly that for England and it will be exciting competing with him again. One of the things you want to do in this sport is go up against people you admire and respect."
When Carter was last spotted on a rugby field just under a week ago, he was performing the unlikely role of waterboy at San Siro in Milan, having been banned from New Zealand's meeting with Italy for a high-tackling transgression against Wales the previous Saturday. "A new experience, that one," he acknowledged, laughing. Unfortunately for England, he did not enjoy it sufficiently to volunteer for a second shift tomorrow.
Who'll rule at No 10? Wilkinson v Carter
Jonny Wilkinson has never faced Dan Carter in an England-New Zealand fixture, but the two men shared the same pitch in the first two Tests of the British & Irish Lions' ill-fated tour of All Black country in 2005.
Carter had the best of it on both occasions, guiding the home side to victory in desperate conditions in his native Christchurch before producing one of the great individual displays in recent memory in Wellington a week later.
Carter is fast closing in on 1,000 Test points, having scored 966 in 64 Tests. Wilkinson is already into four figures, having played eight more matches. But the vital statistic separating the two men is the try count. Wilkinson has scored six tries for England and one for the Lions. Carter? His tally is 25.Reuse content